This time, a state wa­ter bond has real money in­tended to ben­e­fit Val­ley

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY THE FRESNO BEE EDITORIAL BOARD

Four years ago Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers con­sid­ered a $7.5 bil­lion wa­ter bond that Val­ley sup­port­ers hoped would pro­vide money to build a new dam on the San Joaquin River at Tem­per­ance Flat.

That $2.83 bil­lion dam was to pro­vide a crit­i­cal new sup­ply of wa­ter to the Val­ley, both for farm­ers as well as cities. The wa­ter bond, Propo­si­tion 1, was on the bal­lot in the midst of a crush­ing drought, and vot­ers passed it hand­ily. Val­ley of­fi­cials hoped to get $1 bil­lion for their project.

But four years later, noth­ing more than a trickle of money — $171 mil­lion — has been al­lo­cated by state of­fi­cials for the Tem­per­ance Flat dam. De­spite stren­u­ous lob­by­ing by Val­ley of­fi­cials, the state Wa­ter Re­sources Con­trol Board said the dam did not of­fer enough pub­lic ben­e­fit to jus­tify more bond fund­ing. To­day its fu­ture is murky.

Now vot­ers in Novem­ber will con­sider yet an­other wa­ter bond — Propo­si­tion 3, also known as the Wa­ter Sup­ply and Wa­ter Qual­ity Act. It has an even big­ger price: $8.8 bil­lion. Stung by the ex­pe­ri­ence of Propo­si­tion 1, Val­ley vot­ers would be jus­ti­fi­ably skep­ti­cal of this new one. But there are key ben­e­fits that make Propo­si­tion 3 worth sup­port­ing.

For one thing, the au­thor of Propo­si­tion 3, Ger­ald Meral of the Nat­u­ral Her­itage In­sti­tute, says no other pre­vi­ous wa­ter bond has had a fo­cus on the Val­ley like this one.

To start, $750 mil­lion would be de­voted to re­pair­ing and restor­ing the Fri­ant-Kern and Madera canals, key parts of the fed­eral sys­tem that de­liv­ers wa­ter from Miller­ton Lake to Kern and Madera coun­ties. Along the way, the canal pro­vides sup­plies to Fresno, Orange Cove and Lind­say, as well as ir­ri­ga­tion dis­tricts that serve much of the farm­ers on the Val­ley’s east­side.

Last year the Fri­ant Wa­ter Au­thor­ity dis­cov­ered that land had fallen by as much as two feet along the canal near Cor­co­ran. That sub­si­dence means only 40 per­cent of the wa­ter that some farm­ers have con­tracted for can ac­tu­ally be de­liv­ered. Money from Propo­si­tion 3 will al­low the au­thor­ity to re­pair sub­si­dence dam­age and re­store the canal’s grav­ity flow so de­liv­er­ies can be made as de­signed. If the canal is not fixed? Farm­ers will fal­low more acreage, mean­ing less pro­duc­tion, re­duced hir­ing and fewer pur­chases in com­mu­ni­ties whose economies de­pend on agri­cul­ture.

Fri­ant wa­ter is used by 17,000 grow­ers in Fresno, Tu­lare and Kern coun­ties, which are among the top ar­eas in the na­tion for agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion. In 2015, crops grown in those three coun­ties were worth $19.7 bil­lion; grow­ers tak­ing wa­ter from the canal ac­count for $10 bil­lion of that.

An­other $750 mil­lion would be de­voted to safe drink­ing wa­ter and waste­water treat­ment pro­grams for small towns whose res­i­dents are mostly low in­come. While the fund­ing would be al­lo­cated statewide, the Val­ley is home to a num­ber of com­mu­ni­ties that can­not de­liver drink­ing wa­ter that meets state stan­dards. A McClatchy in­ves­ti­ga­tion this year found that about 360,000 Cal­i­for­ni­ans are cus­tomers of wa­ter sys­tems that vi­o­late state stan­dards for ni­trates, ar­senic and other con­tam­i­nants.

About $50 mil­lion would go to the Sierra Ne­vada Con­ser­vancy to clear out dead trees and brush and re­ha­bil­i­tate for­est land where wild­fires had burned. An­other $200 mil­lion would be used by the con­ser­vancy for projects to re­store wa­ter­sheds. That is key to the Val­ley be­cause the Sierra func­tions as the re­gion’s main wa­ter­shed.

The bond would al­lo­cate $640 mil­lion toward help­ing lo­cal wa­ter agen­cies im­ple­ment plans to meet the Sus­tain­able Ground­wa­ter Man­age­ment Act. That state law re­quires un­der­ground aquifers to be in bal­ance be­tween pump­ing and recharge. Com­mu­ni­ties where un­der­ground basins are badly over­drafted, have wa­ter qual­ity prob­lems, or where sub­si­dence is hap­pen­ing would get pri­or­ity for fund­ing. Many com­mu­ni­ties with over­drafts are lo­cated in the Val­ley.

There is op­po­si­tion to the propo­si­tion. The Sierra Club be­lieves money raised by the bond could be used to build new dams, some­thing it has long op­posed.

The Oak­land-based en­vi­ron­men­tal group also dis­likes the al­lo­ca­tion to fix the Fri­antKern Canal, say­ing a statewide bond mea­sure should not be used to ben­e­fit users of a fed­eral wa­ter sys­tem. The club points out that fund­ing would be con­tin­u­ous for decades to come (and would ul­ti­mately cost $17 bil­lion once in­ter­est is fac­tored in), that leg­is­la­tors were not in­volved in draft­ing the propo­si­tion, and that the pub­lic does not have enough over­sight go­ing for­ward.

But Meral says no money is set aside for dam con­struc­tion, and the Fri­ant-Kern Canal needs re­pairs with or with­out a new dam on the San Joaquin. As for over­sight, the propo­si­tion re­quires the state’s Nat­u­ral Re­sources Agency to get an in­de­pen­dent au­dit of spend­ing ev­ery three years, and ev­ery six months reg­u­lar up­dates would be posted on the agency’s web­site to let the pub­lic know how the projects are pro­ceed­ing.

Whiskey may be for drink­ing and wa­ter for fight­ing over, as Mark Twain is fa­mously re­puted to have said. Cer­tainly there is no more com­pli­cated topic in Cal­i­for­nia than wa­ter. Pru­dent vot­ers should take time to study the propo­si­tion.

The Bee strongly rec­om­mends ap­proval be­cause of how Propo­si­tion 3 would di­rectly ben­e­fit the Val­ley. Fix­ing the Fri­ant-Kern Canal, im­prov­ing Sierra wa­ter­sheds and get­ting clean wa­ter to Val­ley com­mu­ni­ties in a broad sweep, as this mea­sure would do, is a once-ina-life­time chance.

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